Thursday, 16 November 2017
Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017; Second Reading
I wish to indicate that I will be supporting the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 to legalise same-sex marriage, as I did when a bill was presented in 2012. That was a bill that failed because there wasn't a free vote allowed on both sides of the chamber. Given that there is on this occasion, I've got no doubt that this particular bill will pass. I think we have seen—I don't think it can be argued otherwise—an emphatic endorsement for a change in the law as a result of the postal survey.
That doesn't change the fact that the postal survey was unnecessary and, I think, in many respects, remained a divisive exercise. I take the view that it was expensive, and that, while the ABS was able to manage it well within its allocated budget, it was a proposition that should have been managed through this parliament. That's what we are paid for, and I think that's what most people regard as our responsibility to undertake. That's been the case on many, many occasions where this parliament has dealt with changes to the Family Law Act. In the past, we've actually dealt with changes to the Marriage Act itself, and it's been a matter of no great difficulty. I can't see why this matter could not have been dealt with in that manner.
There's no doubt, though, that Australians have declared where they stand, on what, to me, is a fundamental human right. We had a turnout of well-nigh 80 per cent. That is very, very high for a voluntary vote, and, by international standards, I think it's probably a record—a record of which we should be very proud. It tells us much about our experience in this country with the Australian ballot. It tells us a great deal about the value of the experience that the Australian people have had with compulsory voting. It tells us that nearly 62 per cent of people have supported the change in the law, which is an absolutely clear majority. In every state and territory, a majority have sought that change.
This bill, however, is a bill about a civil institution, and it's about extending civil rights. It's a bill aimed at updating the law to meet contemporary community values, and it's a bill about ending discrimination. It's not about religion. In fact, I am suspicious of laws that seek to regulate religion. The strong yes vote in the survey showed that people are not swayed by the scaremongers who have tried to present this issue about same-sex marriage as a threat to the freedom of religion, or, as they have sought to do, as an attack on family life. I think the Australian people understand that it is about neither of those things.
So I think we are entitled to ask: what will the result be of changing the law as the result of this bill? The truth of the matter is: some of our fellow citizens have been unjustly excluded from the institution of civil marriage, and they will no longer be. And that's all it is. I don't see it as any matter that goes much beyond that. The sky will not fall. Couples, including same-sex couples, will continue to raise families, as they already do. It's about the democratic rights and freedoms that Australians should possess. It also, of course, allows us to enshrine freedom of religion and freedom of speech, which will continue to be upheld. Religious institutions that celebrate a traditional view of marriage will not be required to change that view. No supporter of same-sex marriage has ever suggested anything to the contrary. The bill allows for ministers of religion and religious marriage celebrants to refuse to marry same-sex couples, but it rightly restricts special protections for religious freedom to the actual celebration of marriage itself.
Frankly, I won't be voting for amendments that seek to undermine other aspects of our civil rights in this country, including any suggestion that we should extend the right to discriminate on any other basis, or to wind back state protections of civil rights. It would be unconscionable to allow businesses to do what they cannot legally do now: to discriminate against people based on their gender or sexual preference, or on any other basis—such as race, for instance. Yet this is what the opponents of this bill have actually been arguing publicly. They are not only resisting a change in the law that will recognise a basic human right; they are demanding that human rights that already exist and are protected in law should lose that protection. It is not supporters of same-sex marriage—and it is not this bill—who are threatening the rights and freedoms of Australians. It is the people who have opposed this overdue change in the law, and they've done so at every stage.
Let's see what this law will actually change. I think this has really been a device to delay—and, again, transparently so—the inevitable. The cross-party committee that recommended this bill rejected those demands, and rightly so. The Law Council of Australia rejected them and warned that conflict with Australia's international human rights and obligations can't be tolerated, and it's clear that a great majority of the Australian people reject the proposition as well. The Australian people want the laws on marriage in this country to be fair and inclusive. I think, as a result of changing the law in this regard, Australia will be a fairer and more inclusive society.
Some people talk of traditional marriage and traditional family as if these things never change. They talk about these civil institutions as if they are locked in, frozen in time. Historically, of course, that is nonsense. The shared social understanding of marriage and the law on marriage have changed many times over the centuries. I think I made this point before, but it's worthy of being repeated. There was a time when the law allowed 12-year-olds to marry. No-one today would see that as anything other than child abuse. There was a time when violence within marriage was barely ever spoken about. No-one would regard that as acceptable today. There have been constant changes in our understanding of the relationships within marriage. There has been an evolving understanding of the nature of marriage, and in a democratic, pluralist society like Australia social institutions like marriage have increasingly been measured against the standard of human rights, as they should be. On that measure, excluding same-sex couples from the secular institution of marriage can no longer be tolerated.
In the language of the 18th century, the language of the Enlightenment, human rights—or natural rights, as they were then called—are inalienable. The state does not grant them. It has the role of upholding and protecting them, and that's what this bill does. It makes Australia a more equal society because more Australians will be able to enjoy fully another fundamental human right recognised even in the 18th century. The sad fact of life is that, in this country, there are still far too many people who run in fear of the Enlightenment. There are too many who seek to mock the aspirations of creating a compassionate society. Our Constitution, for instance, stands in sharp contrast to the principles that are embedded in much older documents, such as the United States Declaration of Independence. In fact, in Australia I'm sure many people on the right find it laughable that some think that the role of government is to guarantee the pursuit of happiness. I've heard them mock it. I've seen Andrew Bolt in the Herald Sun so often argue the case that the pursuit of happiness is not the proposition that we should be engaged in, that the humanities have no role to play in terms of our research programs and that an understanding of the emotions is something we should not be part of. In the 18th century, this principle, which, of course, was written into the US Declaration of Independence, argued that it was a right which was given to humans by the creator. Humanists regard this principle, however, as an inalienable civil right, and I emphasise this. They believe that it is the fundamental responsibility of governments to protect that right. The right of people to marry the person they choose is one such right.
My party has allowed a free vote on this bill. I regard the social reform ushered in by the bill as an expression of Labor's historic task of extending the recognition of human rights. We don't, and I certainly don't, claim that we've always been successful in that task. We certainly don't claim any monopoly on morality, and I don't believe anyone in this chamber has the right to do so. But, as I said in the debate on the same-sex marriage bill presented in 2012, for more than 120 years Labor has relied on this one fundamental premise in terms of its operation. That premise was summed up by one of the Labor Party's earliest parliamentary representatives, George Black. He said that Labor's role was the making and the unmaking of social conditions. When our caucus voted to approve the bill recommended by the cross-party committee, we acted in accordance with that tradition. I'm therefore very pleased to be able to speak in support of the bill today.